The pink city
by Janice Nigro
There is nothing like a personal tour of a city especially in a foreign country.You will get to the best restaurants or events without having to work at it, and in the local language.
I did not do my homework for my brief tour to Toulouse, France, after some meetings in Berlin, Germany because I was staying with friends. I had no clue about the area except an approximate idea of location-near the coast of France, the Pyrenees, and well of course Spain. I took the route straight to Toulouse (you can go to Barcelona and then take a train). It was not clear to me beforehand why Toulouse, the pink city, should have an airport at all, let alone a fabulous one (in fact I google mapped my friends’ address and the airport just to make sure I was going to the right place), but now I know. Airbus. It somehow was appropriate that I should stop here as my journey began on the A380 to Frankfurt.
My flight was not exactly straight to Toulouse. I flew from Berlin-through Amsterdam. For a minute I am nostalgic about my life in Norway as running through Schipol always meant I was going somewhere or returning from somewhere. My gates could not have been farther apart this time. From the D gates all the way to the end of the B gates. But I passed by the Leonidas chocolate shop on the way and had enough time to fill a box with one of every chocolate nearly twice for my friends.
I honestly have not traveled so much in France. As a teenager to the coast and to Paris as an adult where it was nice once and not so nice another time. Alsace Lorraine also. But I do not speak French, so I have perhaps avoided traveling there. The good thing about living overseas is that new friends take care of this problem. A huge number of my friends in Norway were from France. So I had a special reason to visit Toulouse. Toulouse also happens to be near the birthplace of my dog niece. Yes, she came all the way from France.
I would never have gotten the real story about the chicken in the park otherwise. And the fact that the older women of the city know exactly where to find the eggs the hen lays and that they collect them. Sort of a social service born from a bachelor party prank.
The first thing you notice in Toulouse (aside from the pink buildings) is that the air smells delicious. A high density of cozy-sized ethnic restaurants, patisserie, and boulangerie coupled with narrow streets. Some aromas though can take you by surprise. Cured meats and cheeses that make you think you wore your shoes for too long without your socks, but are comfort foods to whoever grows up eating them.
The days were truly French days. Walking in the sun along the river Garonne, and people out eating lunch, actually taking time for lunch. French seem to go for the whole deal for every meal. Even if you are not having a complete meal, you still sit down and are served. My first lunch was at an Italian restaurant. The menu items were in Italian with the description in French except when they were in French and the description in Italian. This I could manage.
We started with an aperitif-a spritz (this was lunch) a bright orange drink, the contents of which I was not sure. Followed by pasta. Although the restaurant was recommended for the main dish, dessert would be somewhere else. My hosts had a specific shop in mind for some small cake of Toulouse. When we arrived at this shop, there were no cakes. But of course there was just another shop.
In Toulouse, you are surrounded by desserts. Desserts are everywhere. And if you cannot go to get the desserts, they will even come to you…in the form of the cookie bike, some kind of a home made version of a food truck.
We took a box of macaroons home. One was the flavor the area is famous for-violets (yes, they eat the flower here which is much easier to do than to eat some other things in other places). My choice was fig with noisettes (hazelnuts). Surprisingly not chocolate.
The thing you do not do with your dessert in Toulouse is share it.
Desserts are not small either. My French lunch mates one day never even considered sharing their desserts, so I was on my own with a berry crumble.
It was a good plan, only four days. One of the days I had thought would be spent in Barcelona, but this would not have helped the eating issue at all. I reached perhaps a low point when I had a gaufre with two types of sauce-salted caramel and praline-with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I skipped however the big helping of crème montee (whipped cream on top).
Every day can go like this except breakfast. Breakfast though might be considered to be just dessert anyway: pain au chocolat first thing in the morning.
The area is also of historical interest. A beautiful castle is at Carcassone about an hour drive south from Toulouse. You drive from the home of Airbus along a modern highway until suddenly what appears by the roadway is a castle far beyond anything that Disneyland dreamed up. At one time the castle was home to the entire population-called in fact Carcassone Citè (as opposed to ville which means city in English).
Now, the castle is filled with shops mostly selling something to eat, especially torrone, a type of nougat candy. You imagine what shops/restaurants had been there before-the kind of restaurant where you might order a roasted pig and a small barrel of wine.
Many visitors were at the castle but more locals than tourists at this time of year. “Let’s go to the castle today for lunch,” you can imagine they say. I took a salad but I was not fooling myself with the calories as it was really about the warm goat cheese. Here my aperitif was from Banyuls on the Mediterranean, something a bit sweet like a port, but not. But I was only a spectator for dessert. I watched as my friends finished their meal, each with their own dessert.
A lot of churches, cloisters, basilicas are in Toulouse. Interestingly the glass window theme is carried over into the airport. The churches house some works of art (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) as well as the Capitol which interestingly dwells on activities performed in the nude. But the paintings are enormous and it is a feat that always impresses me.
English is not commonly spoken in Toulouse. But unlike Paris where in the past I have found this to be a problem, in Toulouse people tried to communicate with me anyway. A little Italian, a little Spanish helps a bit to figure things out. But English is full of French/Latin. Ok, “to try”, if you look at the French verb-essayer-, is a little more like performing a scientific experiment. But if you use your imagination a bit you might start to understand.
On the last day I was on my own. A bit scary as I could not speak French. But I tried anyway. I wanted some cherries (it was cherry season) and other fruit at the main market. I asked the woman for the price. I explained that I did not speak French, but that I could speak Italian and Spanish. No she said, only French. This was not a barrier however as she just said a couple of things that I could understand. For example, Le pris. See I can do this I thought.
Our conversation continued, and she asked where I was from. I then managed to tell her that I had a friend in Toulouse. She knew the word boyfriend, but I did not know the word for couple. I said it was a man (homme) and a woman (femme; not sure how that might have sounded in retrospect). Ah, un couple! Same word but pronounced differently.
I left the land of dark Mediterranean skin and beautiful unHollywood noses that start to be trouble when you become a teenager. I traveled back through Amsterdam where everything begins to be organized again. Tall beautiful people who make their land somehow reflect their physical attributes.
I arrived finally in Munich and a man chose me out of the mass of people to pass on his good-for-one-day ticket for the S-bahn. He could perhaps see that I was a tourist struggling at the machine. The universe is in balance. Later in the evening, a man begging for money, as if sent to me for eating too many desserts, got my leftover woodoven baked aubergine pizza slices.
I cannot quite figure out how the French do it. They are simply not fat. My one theory revolves around the fact that food tastes so good that it is satisfying enough before you eat too much. The other is, that I walked everywhere logging perhaps just over 60 km in four days.
It was back to the USA one day later. Such luck to enjoy true hospitality from friends living in places I would otherwise not think to visit. And now the problem is what to eat…
©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com